By Sam Garfield
March 13, 1952
(Brooklyn) –Why have Americans always been smitten with bank robbers? Jesse James’ Old West hijinks…John Dillinger’s urban bravado…and the slickest of the slick, Willie “The Actor” Sutton…they’re all legends, bigger than life.
Sutton’s about to go back home shortly…home being prison, where he’s spent half of his life. Last month, Brooklyn police finally caught up with Sutton, who’s been on the lam for five years. Sutton–who authorities say has stolen more than $2 million in his illustrious career–has masqueraded as a policeman, postman and prison guard to mastermind bank jobs and escapes. Police nabbed Sutton near his Brooklyn boarding house, just a few blocks from police headquarters…where Sutton had been living for the past two years. The long arm of the law, Brooklyn style.
But this column isn’t about the witty Willie Sutton and his colorful 20-year career. It’s about what happens too often when someone tries to do the right thing.
Late afternoon, February 18. Arnold Schuster, 24, is headed home to Brooklyn on the subway when he spots the diminutive Sutton on the train car. He recognizes Sutton from the “Wanted” poster in his dad’s Manhattan tailor shop — his style, those blue eyes. How could you miss him? When Sutton gets off the train, Schuster makes the worst decision of his life. He follows Sutton out of the car, up the subway stairs and into history.
Schuster shadows Sutton along the Brooklyn sidewalks, hanging back about twenty feet, just the way the detectives do. Schuster, you see, fancies himself a crime buff.
Sutton makes his way to a gas station, a few blocks from police headquarters. Schuster hangs back, watches. Sutton apparently is having car trouble. He raises the hood of his car and starts to tinker with the engine. Schuster decides to notify police. Another bad decision.
Before long two young cops surprise Sutton and ask for his identification. He gives a phony name, shows a phony registration card. He’s an actor, after all. The cops have their doubts. They think he looks like Willie Sutton, but don’t have the nerve to do anything. They head back to the station and tell a detective about the guy and the car. A good decision.
A few hours, Willie Sutton sits in Brooklyn police headquarters, two blocks from his home, telling police, “Yeah, I’m Willie Sutton. You got me.” The two cops and the detective get promotions for catching “The Babe Ruth of Bank Robbers.”
The newspapers, of course, have a field day with the story. But Arnold Schuster, amateur detective, is confused. Where’s my name? The police are taking credit for the arrest. Where’s my name in the newspapers? But Arnold Schuster’s subway decision to follow Sutton now takes a lethal turn. Two days later, Schuster brings a lawyer down to Brooklyn police headquarters. “I’m the guy who brought you Sutton,” he says. “And what about a reward? There’s a reward, right?” Not so fast, pal. The police belatedly tell the papers about Schuster’s help. “An oversight,” they say. Also, there’s other publicity, all quarterbacked by Schuster, crime buff that he is. And that’s when things really go terribly dark for Arnold Schuster.
Schuster receives threatening letters and phone calls over the next several days. Death threats. The police offer protection, but Schuster refuses, so the official story goes. No police presence at his home. So, he’s an easy mark, even in the dark. Nineteen days after he makes his subway decision, police find Arnold Schuster dead on the sidewalk in front of his Brooklyn home. Bullet holes in both eyes. The mark of a rat, or just a good citizen doing the right thing?
Police refuse to call it a retaliation crime, saying there’s no connection with Schuster’s murder and the Sutton gang. But Brooklyn residents don’t see it that way; they immediately chastise police for not protecting Schuster. And phone calls from citizens critical of the way the police are handling the killing continue to pour into newspaper switchboards.
But there’s obviously someone out there–in the shadows–who sees Schuster’s death differently. He just sees another dead rat in Brooklyn.
Copyright © 2012. John Theodore — All Rights Reserved. Text may not be reproduced without permission.